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Red Pen Session 004 – critique of ‘A Sow’s Ear’, a short story by JD Mader

05 Dec

I originally recorded this red pen critique as part of a series of podcast episodes dedicated to reading a short story or self-contained novel extract (with synopsis) and then talking about it afterwards. I am now running these on this blog.

I run a fortnightly critique group as well as critiquing other authors writing which I really enjoy so I thought I’d create podcast episodes doing this, and will now be running future ones on the blog, initially with the already-recorded episodes at 5pm daily then every Sunday evening (UK times).

Please remember that it’s only one person’s (my) opinion and you, and the author concerned, are welcome to disagree with my interpretation – I will never be mean for the sake of it, but hope you find that I’m firm but fair. I type my comments for the recording as I read through the story as a reader would think as they read the story, although they would most likely be reading, not analysing, unless they’re writers too!

Regardless of what genre you write I hope that this helps you think about the way fiction is constructed and that you have enjoyed reading another author’s work, the copyright of which remains with them, then my suggestions for any improvement.

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JD&F sandThe story in this post was kindly emailed to me by JD Mader of San Francisco, USA whose story ‘Green’ I discussed in session no. 1.

This story is called ‘The Sow’s Ear’ and I’m going to be picky this time because I found so little to criticise with Dan’s original story. 🙂

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If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is morgen@morgenbailey.com.

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

So without further ado, the story, then my feedback…

The Sow’s Ear

She had lived in the house for as long as she could remember. And for as long as she could remember they had called it a house, not a trailer.  There was some kind of shame in this…it caused her to flush and grow warm…to doubt the validity of her existence.  She had been born up north, but the Keys were all she knew.  Stupid Jimmy Buffet wannabes.  Fat, old, leathery women pretending a life of glamour.  Old men with big round stomachs that they used to navigate the crowded streets and bars.  The tourists were the worst.  Skin like dough and delusions of vacation respectability.  Trying to pretend they wanted to be at the ass end of Florida.  They drank and talked about how the Riviera was overrated.  How Hawaii was too “commercial”.  And then there were people like Sarah and her mom.  People who never got to go back home with sunburns and pictures and seashells painted by junkies.  People who lived in trailers and called them houses.

It was a hot day and somehow the breeze made it seem hotter.  Sarah was in the kitchen ironing her clothes, her mother’s uniforms, the tablecloth, anything.  She had been ironing for hours.  She needed it.  Needed to see the wrinkles turn to nice, smooth fabric.  She spent so much time ironing.  And cleaning.  And trying to turn the ugly things in her life beautiful.  She painted empty soda cans and made them into birds, flowers, exotic fish.  Her mother insisted she sell some of them, but she never did.   She couldn’t imagine them in some Midwestern duplex.  They belonged to her.

Sarah put the iron down and closed her eyes.  She could hear the soft murmur of the waves crashing on the white beach.  She could feel drops of sweat running down her back like earwigs.  She slowly exhaled and things started coming back to her.  Thoughts bloomed in her mind.  It had been so long since he had left.  But she remembered.  Hank.  She remembered his laugh and the soft wrinkles around his eyes.  She remembered his sour breath and his rough hands.  She remembered her mother coming home early, finding them, Sarah not understanding why everyone was so angry.  She was six then.  Seven years had passed, but she remembered it all.  And now she understood it.  That it was wrong.  That Hank was an asshole.  That there were parts of Hank that they had loved despite it all.  And that her mother would never forgive her for what had happened.  She didn’t blame her, but she would never forgive.  Sarah knew that without a doubt.

She opened her eyes and looked around the tiny kitchen.  Decorations and drawings and wildflowers in empty coke bottles.  All of it made the room look cheaper.  ‘Making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’…wasn’t that what her mother said?  But what was she supposed to do?  She had to try.  She had to hope.  A tear slipped out of her left eye and she wiped it quickly with a tan finger.  Ironing.  She had to finish the ironing.  There was so much of the day left and she did not want to be left alone with herself.  Alone with the loathing she felt.  The seeping anger and frustration.  She wished there was a switch that could turn off her brain.  But she had not yet discovered alcohol, drugs, drag races, motorcycles, sex with nervous tourist boys.  That would come.  But not for a few years.

Sarah picked up the iron and spit, watching the sizzle and dance of the saliva before it evaporated.  She was hypnotized by the heat.  These were things you could count on.  Heat.  Pain.  Anger.  She did not trust love.  She did not trust kindness.  She did not believe that life should be painless.  With a guilty look over her shoulder, she licked her finger and touched the hot metal.  She did this for several minutes, a little bit longer each time, daring herself to see how much she could make it hurt.

She was hungry and had lost track of time.  Sarah made a sandwich and sat down on the couch.  She could hear some tourist boys running to the water, their shrieks in harmony with the gulls.  She thought about the water.  She pictured herself laughing, sprinting through the hot sand until she was submerged.  But it was never like she hoped it would be.  It was never the shock of cold water she wanted.  There was only the gentle defeat of the tepid, luke-warm waves.

On the table lay a pair of her mother’s jeans.  She placed them gently on the ironing board and ran the iron up the faded leg.  She watched the wrinkles, like ripples on the ocean, disappear.  She smiled.  The smooth glide stopped abruptly at the pocket, like the click thump of a rollercoaster before it begins its ascent.  She reached her hand in and felt it close around something small and hard.  Cold.  It was Hank’s ring.  The ring he had been so proud of.  The one with the name of some college he had never attended.  She slipped it into her pocket.  Now it was hers.  And she knew exactly what that meant.

My Comments:

Firstly I love the title. It could likely go one of two directions; literally either a pig’s ear or, more likely, run along the definition of not being able to ‘make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’.

Starting from the first line, the ‘hook’, we know that our main character is a woman and likely to be mature because of her memory of living in the house. Then we learn that it’s not actually a house but a trailer and that tells us that ‘they’ (presumably her family) had felt it to be more of a home. Then we start feeling sorry for her by her actually feeling shame that her family had wanted a better life than they had. The location, we find out, is the Florida Keys. Being in England, I had heard of Jimmy Buffet so had to Wikipedia him to find out that he is a singer / songwriter. The analogy is therefore a little lost on me but having the word ‘wannabe’ after his name gives us (the reader) the context so it really doesn’t matter whether we know him or not. With this phraseology we also start to get her personality coming through with the words ‘stupid’, ‘fat’ and ‘leathery’. She clearly has issues, which is great, as characters need to be imperfect, and she continues to list the people around her with such distain. By the end of the first paragraph we learn her name; Sarah, and that (although we already knew this) that by saying “mom” that the author – or at least for this context – is American because in the UK we would say “mum”.

The second paragraph is equally as desolate with Sarah ironing for her life, almost compulsively and we learn that her mother works somewhere with a uniform, I picture a café or hotel perhaps so by talking about her we’re also learning about her mother, and we can assume by now that there’s just the two of them. I’m always a fan of inanimate objects having some life breathed into them and we have Sarah’s soda cans, such ordinary and worthless because they’re empty, having some meaning to her  and a different meaning, a monetary one, to her mother. This is a minor conflict already.

I’d forgot, again an Englishism, that there’s water at the Florida Keys so it was a lovely surprise having the crashing of waves and the image of the white beach wants me to be there. I also love the image of the drops of sweat being converted into earwigs.

Next we have mention of the first male character in the story; Hank – a very American name. Her memories start with fondness but grow quickly unpleasant which makes us understand why she comes across as quite bitter.

Sarah is quite a bit younger that I imagined; 13 which makes her ‘teenagery’ and therefore it’s a possibility for her to be riddled with angst.

“That there were parts of Hank that they had loved despite it all.” I felt this wording about Hank’s parts to be a little unfortunate given what had taken place between the two of them when she was six. Maybe this could be rephrased. 🙂

I did wonder why her mother would never forgive Sarah because presumably as a six year old she didn’t have much say in whatever happened, unless this is just Sarah’s understanding in which case this needs to be made a little clearer.

Then we get confirmation of the implication of the title (although the description of the people leads us in that direction).

Where JDs written “A tear slipped out of her left eye and she wiped it quickly with a tan finger”, I know what he means (a tanned finger?) but I thought for a second that it was a finger of tan (like leather hide).

It’s a real shame that it’s clearly been left to Sarah to keep the house neat and that in itself would make us feel sorry for her. As does ‘she did not want to be left alone with herself’ (although we don’t need ‘with herself’ and alone implies she’s not with anyone else).

Although I liked the phraseology of ‘sex with nervous tourist boys’, I’m torn with the mention of her finding drugs etc. as if it’s an inevitability to make us lose interest in her achieving some solace before then.

“Sarah picked up the iron and spit” I wonder if ‘spit’ (present tense) should have been ‘spat’. I’d be inclined to lose the ‘She was hypnotized by the heat’ as it’s a ‘tell’ and tells us what the ‘watching the sizzle and dance of the saliva’ (which I love) ‘shows’ us. Then what she does next is really sad; a form of self-harm. We’ve (hopefully) warmed to her and don’t want anything bad to happen to her especially given what she’s been through already. Even just the five words “guilty look over her shoulder” tells us so much – that she doesn’t want anyone to know what she’s doing to herself.

Another pick: with ‘Sarah made a sandwich’ although we’ve had a few ‘she’s, we don’t need Sarah’s name here. And even her thinking nice thoughts (frolicking in the water with the tourist boys’) leads to sadness with it ‘never liked she hoped it would be’, and I love the phrase ‘the gentle defeat’.

We get the understanding of the respect she has for her mother as Sarah lays her mother’s jeans gently on to the ironing board and the fact that her jeans are ‘faded’ is another nice touch, as are the ocean-like wrinkles and the iron’s comparison of a rollercoaster.

Me being me, I’d lose the ‘It was’ from ‘It was Hank’s ring’ as we know that it’s the explanation of what the item is.

The reference to ‘some college’ highlights either Sarah’s lack of spark or that of Hank because although he’s proud of the ring, it’s associated with somewhere he’d never been which again is a great indication of character.

The end is intriguing because whatever went on between Sarah and Hank she has the upper hand now. She has the ring he was attached to and presumably her mother was too so she almost has control here too.

Conclusion

For me, this story is very relatable as it is a situation that could so easily happen to any child in any location and the fact that it was set in a country I’ve never been to really doesn’t matter. JD has built Sarah to be a character who, although she’s angry, is sympathetic and he’s cleverly introduced her as a bitter character and then peeled back the layers of backstory to reveal why she is like that. I like the fact also that the actual location of the piece is in a confined space but because outside events (the boys in the water) are mentioned it doesn’t feel claustrophobic.

I would suggest that JD looks at the sentence structure as there were perhaps too many sentences beginning ‘Sarah’ or ‘she’. It’s quite easy to turn sentences round for instance instead of saying ‘Sarah picked up the iron and spit, watching the sizzle’ an inversion here of ‘Picking up the iron, she spat, watching the sizzle’ and so on.

A writer should always think about the five senses and JD covers them well here. We have sounds such as the ‘sizzle’ of the iron and the tourist boys in the water, there’s plenty of sight, even behind closed eyes early on. We have the touch of her finger on the hot iron and although taste is a little more indirect (and usually the one that’s usually omitted) she’s made a sandwich so we can imagine her eating that! This just leaves smell which is missing and whilst it’s not vital it could be something that JD can think about.

All in all a great piece which I think could easily expanded and I, for one, would love to meet her mother (even if only to know where she works) and Hank (even if only to know which parts of him are “loved despite it all”).

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Joe cafe coverJD’s website is http://www.jdmader.com where you can read his stories and much more, and if you’d like to you can email him there too. He told me in his email to me that this story came from one of his writing workshops with his students where they decided to write about ‘Green’ – and he was trying to show them what could be accomplished in such a short story. I’d say it worked. He also added that rhythm is very important to him which I can understand as this piece has a really poetic feel.

He has been fortunate enough to encounter many giving and inspiring people in his life.

He hopes to repay the debt.

And to make enough money with his writing to buy a house.

His first novel Joe Café, second, The Biker, and collaboration ‘Bad Book’ (with Hise and Brooks) are available from Amazon.

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If you have any feedback on this or aspects of my website or blog, I’m always delighted to hear from you – my email address is morgen@morgenbailey.com.

And if you’re feeling brave enough to send me a short story or novel extract (with a brief synopsis please) – 3,000-words maximum – for these red pen blog sessions then feel free.

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5 responses to “Red Pen Session 004 – critique of ‘A Sow’s Ear’, a short story by JD Mader

  1. Yvonne Hertzberger

    December 5, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I love Dan’s stories. I can relate to most of them so well. I think that Sarah’s mother would never forgive her for the same reason that she kept Hank’s ring in her pocket. She had been in love with him and Sarah reminded her of the loss of the illusion of love and a normal life. The molestation of Sarah by Hank meant he was not the man she tried to convince herself he was. She lost that when she caught them and he had to leave. I suspect Sarah’s mother had had a sense all along that all was not well but had chosen to ignore it.

     
    • JD Mader

      December 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      You’re a sharp one, Yvonne. You too, Morgen. Thanks!

       
  2. morgenbailey

    December 5, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    De nada JD. Always a pleasure, never a chore (now which film is that from?).

     
    • JD Mader

      December 6, 2012 at 7:16 pm

      Film, eh? I remember having time to watch those. 😉

       
  3. morgenbailey

    December 6, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    I’ve not seen that one for a while (‘Maybe Baby’ with Joely Richardson and Hugh Laurie – better known as House) but I get to see a movie at home every Wednesday night (with both lodgers) then go to the cinema with lodger no.1 on Saturday afternoons… the only time I sit and do ‘nothing’. 🙂

     

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